SPFBO Finalist review: Burn Red Skies by Kerstín Espinosa Rosero
Read FBC's interview with Kerstin
Publication Date: November 12, 2020 Publisher: Kerstín Espinosa Rosero Page Count: 400 Cover design: Franziska Haase
This started off with a kind of steam-punk feel. I really liked the cover and the world is super cool.
I am just going to jump in without my usual short blurb because this is a hard one to summarize without spoiling, since the magic, world, and people are all kind of tied together.
This story features an elemental-based magic system, tied to the surroundings and its people by location/territory and (I assume) birth. This reminded me a bit of FF4 where when you traveled the map the area's monsters changed according to the climate- snowy section were ice monsters etc. This is similar in the idea, but one where the people have also been influenced, or adapted, by that environment along with any of their potential magic-based skills; the sun burns the ice-area people, and fire-area people not only wield fire, but are immune to the flames as well- that sort of idea. It’s really neat and I enjoyed this a lot.
There is a fairly large cast that is introduced over the course of the book- some of them quite a bit later in the story. The pov’s were all easy to tell apart though, which I thought was notable.
Because of the way the story unfolds and the style (which is kind of drop-in and hope you keep up) those late-comers pov’s were not as jarring as I would normally find them. (Some of this might be because we gain them as the story explores other areas of the world)
I liked Dancer and Bard the best. Dove and Nan together were very sweet. And the intro to Dove’s brother Gryph, was probably the best grab, for making me want to keep on reading. In the end though, it was Valerya that I found the most interesting- maybe because of the little glimpses here and there of her not seeming to be fully onboard with what her position as General/Summoner is requiring of her.
As the story progressed, we are introduced to quite a bit of the world and culture, as well as some exciting ideas with the Skinwalkers, the coins, the insurgents, etc all helping to give a wider view of the politics of the world. Though at times things felt a little vague and I was never quite sure I grasped the whole picture, or why certain things were happening- especially in the beginning. (Some of this fell into place towards the end)
On the whole the story requires a bit of faith and patience, to see where it is headed because it does feel very unconnected for a long time.
But the writing was beautiful with some really nice turns of phrase and I did enjoy how the relationships worked, and the thread of fate that tied them and their purposes together, as the story unfolded.
I think the next book will probably bring a lot of this together and build on the story and would likely be one of those series that really pays off in the finale.
Burn mostly feels like the story of two youngsters, Dove and Gryff, who escape the destruction of their village by the forces of a tyrant king, and end up going in very different directions, with the mute Dove finding her way into the resistance and Gryff ending up as the squire to the woman who is both the king’s leading general and architect of the punitive acts of fire visited on the populace.
I felt the strength of this book was watching the two primary characters grow and develop, taking opposite paths. Dove finds a way to tap her hidden strengths to become an asset to the rebels and Gryff take a darker path, becoming more vicious and willing to kill. It’s a great contrast and their inevitable meeting is wrought with emotion and drama. Also, I have to say that having one of the main characters—Dove—depicted as a mute was a bold choice but it works really well here. A third POV concerns a veteran going by the name of Bard, and a mysterious mage-warrior he meets named Dancer. Bard’s backstory seems to be involved into the history of the tyrant king’s rise to power and also appears tied to some of the rebels with whom Dove associates. The revealed details of Bard’s story are dripped out in a very slow, very patient fashion and hint at the depth of the characters’ histories together. He’s interesting but I thought his presence detracted from the duality of the younger pair. A fourth POV involves Valerya, the king’s general, and Gryff’s direct boss. I gathered she is supposed to be conflicted over the brutal acts required by her role and position but I didn’t find her very likable and never developed much empathy for her.
The book’s pace is relatively slow, with lots of exposition spelled by an action scene here and there. This very much felt like a case where a lot of groundwork was being laid for future volumes but at the cost of keeping this one moving. The middle third of the book dragged in places. The character development of the lead actors was interesting enough to keep things going and the story peaked in a satisfying (if somewhat contrived) manner.
I didn’t necessarily click with the worldbuilding. It was hit or miss for me. While some of the elements (airship traders, the dark wolves, the city buried in the ice) were neat, too much of it felt obscure and not well-explained. There are various types of elemental magic users, the most powerful of which are summoners, who can force a dragon from its home realm to come the characters’ world and wreck havoc, but the mechanisms and exact limitations felt murky. I’m not someone who favors hard, rigid, magic systems but I admit, I didn’t fully understand this one; nor did I really get the various backstories of the feuding nations. I didn’t have a good connection with the setting, which left the whole thing feeling a little untethered.
Overall, Burn is a bit slow for my tastes but it has some interesting, memorable characters and while the worldbuilding wasn’t for me, there is a lot there to absorb. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes multi-POV stories, elemental magic, and wars against the crown.
Burn Red Skies has a great title, cover, and worldbuilding. The story could be tightened up a bit, but overall it's fun.
The protagonist of Burn Red Skies, the mute Dove, has some fancy elemental powers (based on fire). Others consider her disability a weakness, but Dove is not weak. At first, she fears her powers, but she embraces them and develops organically over time. I appreciated her gradual change.
Valerya is another standout character, the first Dragon Summoner in hundreds of years. The thing is, she's not interested in becoming the savior everyone has been waiting for; she's more into a new reign of terror. I imagine some readers will not like her. I do. She is well written.
The setting sets Burn Red Skies apart from generic fantasy worlds. Airships, dragons, politics, drama, and mayhem always add some spice. Elemental magic is always fun. Interestingly, the magic has weakened over the generations. As a result, those who have it reign those who don't. No one likes when something (or someone) disturbs this order.
This story has a lot to offer. If it stumbles, it's in making readers understand why the world is the way it is. The setting is fabulous and imaginative but not well-explained. Mentions of specific events signify something to characters, but not to readers. Another thing that decreased my enjoyment was the novel's shifting pace. Parts were engaging; parts dragged a bit.
Ultimately, however, the story's unexpected turns and the author's crisp writing style keep readers flying through the book. It's not perfect, but it's a promising debut and a potentially exciting series.
OFFICIAL SPFBO RATING